EOT 326 - Brooke Dickhart: The Joel Fund; Dr. Paul Kaloostian on Stress

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On tonight's episode we have an interview with Brooke Dickhart, the executive director of the Joel Fund, a local veterans' nonprofit that recently received a federal grant to implement its therapeutic writing program at Walter Reed Medical Center. Afterwards is Elizabeth Esser's interview with Dr. Paul Kaloostian, a neurosurgeon and author. They discuss how stress cognitively affects college students.
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Eoin Trainor  00:00
The views and opinions expressed in Eye on the Triangle do not represent WKNC or the student media.
Eoin Trainor  00:34
Good evening Raleigh and welcome to this week's Eye on the Triangle an NC State student produced news show on WKNC 88.1 FM HD-1 Raleigh. I'm Eoin Trainor. On tonight's episode, you'll hear my interview with Brooke Dickhart, Brooke is the executive director of the Joel Fund Wake Forest nonprofit that serves veterans. The Joel Fund recently received a federal grant to implement one of its programs at Walter Reed Medical Center. We talked about that, the Joel funds mission and much more. Afterwards is Elizabeth Esser's interview with Dr. Paul Kaloostian, a neurosurgeon and author. Elizabeth talked to him about the effects of stress on college students cognitive functioning. But first you have a quick story from the North Carolina News Service enjoy.
Nadia Ramlagan  01:15
North Carolina is ramping up plans to lease offshore wind-energy areas to developers, as the Biden administration expresses support for those efforts. The green light comes one year before a decade-long Trump-era moratorium on offshore development is slated to go into effect – on July 1st of next year. Despite the pending moratorium, which includes wind-energy, Democratic Congresswoman Deborah Ross of Raleigh says the state is poised to be a leader in offshore power generation and manufacturing.
Deborah Ross  01:43
And, with a bipartisan effort in our delegation to seek the ability to harness the best offshore wind in the country – and associated research and technology that will go with it – it will benefit North Carolina for decades to come.
Nadia Ramlagan  02:02
Earlier this year, Ross sent a letter signed by a bipartisan group of North Carolina lawmakers urging the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to hold lease sales for two of the state’s existing wind-energy areas in federal waters off the coast of Wilmington. It's unlikely the Trump moratorium on offshore development would be overturned in such a divided Congress. But Jaime Simmons of the Southeastern Wind Coalition says the most recent move is a sign the Biden administration is willing to take prompt action before the moratorium begins.
Jaime Simmons  02:32
We’re in a unique position here in North Carolina, because we already have what’s called wind energy areas identified. It gives a signal to those manufacturers; it gives them the certainty that they need to start making those investments.
Nadia Ramlagan  02:47
Director of North Carolina Political Affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund David Kelly points out the state already has a reputation as a clean-energy leader and a hub for clean tech.
David Kelly  02:58
It’s reassuring to know that our state’s leaders in Congress recognize the opportunity that offshore wind, emerging as a industry in the United States, offers. And that they're taking action to make sure North Carolina is well-positioned to compete for wind-energy jobs.
Nadia Ramlagan  03:13
Offshore wind is expected to create a 70-billion-dollar supply chain and tens of thousands of new jobs in the United States by 2030. For North Carolina News Service, I'm Nadia Ramlagan.
Eoin Trainor  03:31
This is Eoin Trainer with WKNC 88.1's Eye on the Triangle and I'm here with Brooke Dickhart, the executive director of the Joel Fund fund, a veterans nonprofit based in Wake Forest. Brooke, welcome to the program. 
Brooke Dickhart  03:41
Thank you so much for having me. 
Eoin Trainor  03:43
To start, would you mind telling us a little bit about what the Joel Fund does?
Brooke Dickhart  03:48
Absolutely. So the Joel Fund helps connect veterans to their communities. We do this through three main programs, we have a resource connection where we will work one on one with veterans and their family members to connect them to the services that they're looking for. We have operation art, which is our art classes for veterans and their family members. And then operation furnish, which is a furniture program locally where we can find gently used donated items for veterans in need.
Eoin Trainor  04:20
And I've heard that you have a new program of expressive writing classes as part of Operation Art would you mind telling us a little bit about that?
Brooke Dickhart  04:27
Absolutely. So this program was something that I started in honor of my dad because I after he passed away I found sheets of yellow legal paper where he had tried to write his story and I figured if he had trouble doing it then others probably do also. And so we started working with a with an amazing local writer to develop a class we also worked with a couple of veterans from the Vietnam Veterans of America to develop this class and we launched it a little over a year ago. And it has been a very successful program for us.
Eoin Trainor  05:07
And how have the veterans and their families who have taken the course responded, did they find it helpful?
Brooke Dickhart  05:13
Absolutely. They even asked us to bring in a therapist for the class. So our classes, we often say that there it's community therapeutic arts, we're not offering art therapy, however, with writing that can trigger a lot of emotions and that sort of thing. And the veterans who helped us develop the curriculum, really wanted there to be a therapist, as the safety net in the class, so that if they were writing about their time in the service, that they could do it in a safe and secure environment. And so because of those things that we have in place, they have really loved the class and have been able to write freely and feel that they can do it safely.
Eoin Trainor  05:59
And you recently received grant support for the program, what does that enable you to do anything new? 
Brooke Dickhart  06:05
Yes, so we just recently, were selected from a national search to do a writing program at Walter Reed Medical Military or Military Medical Center out of Bethesda, Maryland, to bring our writing program to their employee wellness program. So we work with people who work in the hospital, some of them are veterans, they are all caregivers, because of the population that they serve. We've even had a couple active duty soldiers who called in from overseas, you know, the technology that we have with virtual, you know, conference calls, and that sort of thing has really been our silver lining story, because we can now reach more veterans and family members across the world because of this technology, it doesn't have to just be centered to our area. And that has enabled us to take our writing program and expand it and bring it to the people at Walter Reed, which is been amazing.
Eoin Trainor  07:09
Then what was the transition between Wake Forest and Walter Reed like? Was there any kind of new challenges that you encountered?
Brooke Dickhart  07:16
Oh, yes, for sure. It's a, it's a much different dynamic when you're offering a writing class for people who work together. And in the military, you know, there's a hierarchy hierarchy. So there's a lot of considerations that we did not anticipate that we've had to navigate but they have renewed our contract. And so we're working through all that with Walter Reed. And they're it's their program is called creative forces. Creative forces is art therapy that is offered, I think it's um, 10 sites across the country, on bases, and then at Walter Reed. And so we've been working with the with the folks at creative forces and Walter Reed to make sure that the program is just right for their for the students that we are getting from them.
Eoin Trainor  08:06
And then the instructor assigns writing prompts, what are these like? And can you give us some examples of what some of them have been?
Brooke Dickhart  08:16
So the the writing prompts vary every week, and every class and that is based on who's in the class, and you know, what's going on around us during the time. But one example that I can give you that was for this week was described in vivid language, someone you deeply cared for who served our country, and his, and who is no longer with us. So that was their writing prompt heading into Memorial Day weekend.
Eoin Trainor  08:48
And if you don't mind, telling viewers, what kind of stuff if you know, did some of the veterans write for that one?
Brooke Dickhart  08:55
That I haven't seen yet actually, they they will be working on it for Actually, today. They have class today. So I haven't seen the writing yet. 
Eoin Trainor  09:05
And, did COVID kind of create any unique mental health related challenges for the veterans in your programs? And did you have to adjust any of them at all?
Brooke Dickhart  09:18
Absolutely. In fact, it was a very scary time for us as an organization that serves veterans, so many of the veterans that we work with come to us as direct referrals from the rec therapy department at the VA. So a lot of them are working through some mental illness and isolation is not a great thing for that population. And so we had to pivot immediately and figure out how to continue to serve them. And because one aspect of our classes is creating this sense of community, and connecting veterans and family members with their peers, we knew we needed to continue to bring that same feeling to these men and women, it's not just a class, we often say that art is just the vehicle. They do leave our classes learning an amazing skill. And they are taught by extremely, very well trained individuals. But we also mentor our instructors on military culture and how to create this feeling of community. And so we had to work very hard to continue to create that online. Of course, it's not a perfect match, but it has still been very effective and before the holidays, there was a group in fact, it was one of our writing classes got together and had a zoom holiday party, one class dressed up at Halloween. So we've really been able to still create this, this feeling of community even though we are online.
Eoin Trainor  09:46
And are veterans in the course, they're able to kind of share and talk about their writing and their experiences, correct?
Brooke Dickhart  10:57
Yes, they do love to share it's it's a very intimate group. Usually we have around five students give or take, you know, one or two more, it depends on you know, the day or the time, but they, they will always they have the option to share if they don't personally want to share the instructor will share for them but there is there is under no circumstance are they required to share. One thing that we are going to be doing very soon is now that things are starting to open up and we're able to get together in person again, we are planning to do a reading where the people who are in our class can meet in person, those who are local, and invite family members and friends and they will read their stories that they have written. Such a big part of it is being able to share in all of our classes, whether it's photography, or drawing or painting, they really take some pride in being able to share what they've created with their family members.
Eoin Trainor  12:00
Thanks for coming on.
Brooke Dickhart  12:02
Thank you, I really appreciate the opportunity.
Elizabeth Esser  12:09
I'm Elizabeth Esser with WKNC 88.1 Eye on the Triangle. Joining us today is renowned neurosurgeon, author and speaker Dr. Paul Kaloostian. Dr. Kaloostian is a Board Certified neurosurgeon and the author of numerous books, including the young neurosurgeon, lessons from my patients, from the eyes of a doctor, and my surgical cases told in poems. He's here today to discuss stress and how it affects the brain functions of college students. Dr. Kaloostian, thank you for joining us today on Eye on the Triangle to get us started. What exactly is stress? And what's going on in our brains when we experience it?
Dr. Paul Kaloostian  12:49
Yeah, that's so that's the that's the million dollar question. So stress is a essentially state of being where your brain and and body communicate in a certain specific way based on the hormones and neurotransmitters that are secreted at that time. And so we've all experienced it, we've all experienced stress, we all really know what what it is because we've we've been through it we experience on a daily basis. And certainly college students experience it, you know, because of everything they're going through in school and others. So but it's but it's really a process that is really regulated by the brain itself. There are specific areas that do that. And these areas secrete hormones and neurotransmitters through our bloodstream that then make our other areas of our body realize, hmm, something's not right, I should feel a certain way, which is stress. So that's what really happens during that stressful moment, or moments of our lives.
Elizabeth Esser  14:07
And can stress have lasting effects on our brains and bodies? And if so, what does that look like?
Dr. Paul Kaloostian  14:14
Absolutely. And once again, you know, similar to what I just said before, we've all experienced it. We've had moments where, let's say we're in a particular situation and  we've been in that situation before. So our minds go back to that prior time or times where we've been in that situation. And that makes us nervous and stressed. You know, for example, public speaking, let's say you've, you gave a talk once and something bad happened. I don't know. Maybe someone laughed  at you or you said a word wrong or whatever. And so the next time or next few times after that, you can always remember that particular event where you had a tough time right? So that the the memory center of the brain the hippocampus, We call it is super important in this whole stress response. And so there are permanent features because obviously years later we remember these episodes way back early on in the past. And and so the brain really remembers what had happened in the past so certainly there are permanent aspects to it and there are actually genetic components to it. So stress can affect your actual DNA, believe it or not through a variety of responses, but often through repeated experiences of stress over time. The common thing is, let's say someone you know, a young child, you know, witnesses domestic violence between the parents or some multiple arguments between parents or others. If that happens, often, what has been found is that there's genetic alterations, so that that particular child really, experiences stress a different way, if they see that particular episode. And it's based on all these neurotransmitters that are secreted that affect proteins that are expressed on our surfaces of ourselves. So certainly, there are permanent aspects in many, many ways, as I just mentioned.
Elizabeth Esser  16:17
And college students undergo a lot of stress for a multitude of reasons. are college aged people differently affected by stress compared to other age groups? And if so, in what ways?
Dr. Paul Kaloostian  16:30
Well, I think everyone experiences stress differently. And I don't know if I would break it down by age. And I don't know if there are any specific studies that do that. But I think the, the process of experiencing stress in handling stress is really a human trait, meaning, it probably isn't going to be very, very different among all of us, we probably all feel somewhat similar in, in different situations, and how we react to that particular stressor in our life. But certainly, you know, I've done a lot of schooling to become a neurosurgeon, I've been in school for a long, long time, and then training for a long, long time. That comes with a lot of difficult times. I mean, there are a lot of great times to but there's a lot of difficult times, that certainly are stressful. And I remember studying for finals, midterm exams, just all of that, I mean, I'm so thankful that's over. But that certainly was tough. But you know, I want also your audience to know that stress can also be very good, there's, there's good stress, there's kind of a mediocre, or a medium level of stress. And then there's toxic stress. So there's, there's really a variety of different types of stress in the body. And so and I would say that, it's actually a very healthy thing to have some stress in our lives, because it, it actually motivates us to do things we likely wouldn't do if we didn't have this little push, or this little heart rate increase, you know, to get us doing these things. But But I think, you know, college students, they experience, a significant amount of stress. And I think that, you know, most colleges, most universities, have environments where, where students are able to really tap into to look for help to look for methods of de stressing, I think that's very valuable in, in the university setting. Certainly, you know, the places I've went, those those things were present and very helpful. But, but I think most of us experience stress quite similarly.
Elizabeth Esser  19:09
So like everyone, college students have experienced many new situations in the last year due to COVID. You know, we've switched from in person classes to online learning. And students have been, have experienced isolation due to social distancing, among other things. How have these changes maybe affected stress levels or mental health as a whole in students
Dr. Paul Kaloostian  19:38
Significantly increased these these issues. I mean, and I see it in many of my patients, I would say, almost daily. I can't tell you how many patients I see that that tell me about all the difficult times that they're going through since COVID. And actually, I think we've, we've we've coined a new phrase post COVID stress disorder, kinda like a post traumatic stress disorder, but it's a post COVID stress disorder, it's really becoming the kind of the new theme now, among medical providers and psychologists. And, I mean, just as you can imagine, Elizabeth, I mean, just just picture, you know, losing someone close to you, and you're not able to go to the hospital to see them. And they're not doing well, and some may pass, you know, just just that situation alone. Imagine that, you know, let's say someone closest to you, you know, how do you handle that, you know, you're just hearing them on the phone, you know, and, you know, and that's the, that's just one situation, imagine other types of situations during  COVID, where people have lost their jobs that, you know, literally companies have fallen under, and people have been fired, literally fired, lost their jobs. I know many people where that's happened to, and, and they have no income, no income source, they have kids, they have grandkids, they have mortgages, etc. Imagine that stress. There's so many, so many different situations, with COVID, where people weren't prepared. And, and how can you be, you know, this is something out of the blue and, and it has really dramatically, unfortunately, affected people's lives in such a negative way. And, but like I said, I think this this disorder is really very important nowadays, you know, for all providers, and psychologists seeing patients, even nurses, others, you're going to see this, that's probably going to be be seen in many, many patients for many years to come. It's a very significant problem. And it just is difficult to to really deal with just given the acuity of COVID how it happened just so quickly, so suddenly. And, and just the psychological component to, to dealing with all of these stresses all at once, I think is is compounding The, the the difficulty of really treating, treating this. So I think it's it's very valuable to really understand what's going on in people's lives, especially as providers to really try and help them best where we can.
Elizabeth Esser  22:46
Right? Well, absolutely. We've all gone through this very traumatic experience. So I guess, going off of that, we're now at this point where we're sort of transitioning back into normal life, you know, students are returning back to campus this coming semester. Do you have any tips on how students can cope with stress as we make this transition?
Dr. Paul Kaloostian  23:15
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there are a lot of healthy ways to, to deal with with stress in your life. And I know there are a lot of studies identifying exercise as a very, very critical means of de stressing and, and I won't go into the specific mechanisms of why that that is so but but certainly, you can understand it through exercise, there's a better blood flow throughout the body, because the heart is not pumping stronger, and our muscles are all squeezing the blood back to the heart. And so there's more, there's more blood supply to important areas of our brain and heart and other parts of our body that that allow us to, to clear our minds to have that energy to think beyond the stress and to move forward towards solutions. So I think exercise is just so so invaluable. Sleeping is very critical. Most studies recommend probably about six hours of uninterrupted sleep a day. I think that is fair and valid. Sleep is essentially really the one of the only ways our body can recharge itself. And that's the way I think of sleep. I think of sleep as kind of like charging your phone or charging you know, whatever you need to charge. It's that means of recharging the system or rebooting the system. And during the course of it, a typical day for a college student and others that they can beat you down so to speak just with all the activities that occur both physically and psychologically, you get tired, you get beaten down, your brain is injured, your body's injured. And so that sleep is just so valuable for those six hours or so, to really help those areas of the brain and body just heal, so that it can then do the same thing the following day in a, in a safe way. So I think sleep is so critical. Obviously, counseling, there are and should be, at least at most universities, I'm sure North Carolina State that has methods of seeking help, psychologically, someone to just speak to perhaps a counselor or psychologist others. And I think that is great. I don't think there's any negative stigma attached to that, I think more people should do that. And, you know, we're all social beings, we all need communication needs social interaction. And so I think that's, that's crucial to be able to communicate with someone who's trained to, to help others deal with with tough situations, so that you can then, by speaking, work through those problems that have tangible solutions. I think those are some of the solutions that I would recommend. Elizabeth. 
Elizabeth Esser  26:28
Great. Thank you so much. And then I guess, finally, is there anything else that you'd like to add? Regarding the topic of stress and college students? what you're working on or anything else?
Dr. Paul Kaloostian  26:40
Well, you know, I am a writer. So I think writing, you know, would be a fantastic way of de stressing, it's one of the one of the reasons why I have kind of partook in, in, in writing is because it really enabled me to, to de stress. As you could imagine, I just see so many sick, sick patients, gunshot wounds to the head and assaults to the head and spine. And I have to fix this and, and after a while, after many, many 1000s of these cases, I needed to just have an outlet. So I think for me, poetry or in writing, were my methods of doing that. And it really was super helpful. So I would recommend that, you know, the students in college university. Right. And it could be anything could be short poems, like haikus, or it could be a memoir of what they've experienced in their life. I'm sure people would love to read about that. And I think through that, you can get these these emotions out of your system. And I think that'll help you be a little bit more calm and collected and able to tackle any of the next challenges that come your way.
Elizabeth Esser  27:56
Well, thank you so much for joining us today. Dr. Kaloostian. The work you do is so important, and it was truly a pleasure speaking with you. 
Dr. Paul Kaloostian  28:03
Pleasures all mine. Thank you.
Eoin Trainor  28:09
And that is it for this week's Eye on the Triangle. Thanks for tuning in. If you have any questions, comments, ideas, or like to get involved with the Eye on the Triangle team, shoot us an email at public affairs@wknc.org. We'd love to hear from you. Stay tuned for your regular programming. We'll see you next time.
EOT 326 - Brooke Dickhart: The Joel Fund; Dr. Paul Kaloostian on Stress
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